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Common job issues and solutions in International Management

How to Prevent Cultural Conflict In International Organizations


{#/pub/images/HowToPreventCulturalConflictInInternationalOrganizations.jpg}Conflict and difference can separate or strengthen corporate teams, depending on how they are handled. 


When handled poorly Separateness can fester into fears and incorrect judgments, all taking focus and energy off the very reason the organization exists, whereas when handled well, diverse approaches, insights and opinions have the potential to foster unity, increase teamwork and productivity.  


When any conflict is not managed well, and the difference that exists is between two nationalities, the cultural component can double or triple the conflict’s impact, spreading a form of virtual cancer through the organization.  With any culture comes unbridled pride and passion, and in the case of conflict much camaraderie, fuelling the conflict beyond the real issue.


An international manager must realize the potential impact that culture plays in the face of conflict.  With this knowledge, he or she can preemptively overcome cultural conflict by taking the opportunity to be the executive sponsor of culturally rich corporate environments and productivity in a diverse environment.  They can do this by endorsing and implementing the following mechanisms on a consistent, visible and active basis.  With these in place, when conflict of any sort does strike, the sheer essence of cultural support should prevent a basic conflict from tipping over the edge.  Some examples are included here, and while basic, are easily achievable and possible in most environments:


3 Mechanisms For International Managers To Prevent Cultural Conflict & Strengthen Their Teams


1.    Celebrate and Bring Any Cultural Nuance to the Forefront


All employees have National Days in their home countries, and when working abroad, those days mean a lot to them.  They demonstrate a little more about their culture to others in the team and build a sense of curiosity from the others around.  Why not encourage them all to celebrate in a way that suits them, while ensuring that the ‘education’ side of the celebration is maximized.  For example, one might wish to cook a national dish, another put on a show, another to wear national costume. 


2.    Highlight Diverse Teams


Be ever on the lookout for those who seem to be willing and able to champion the positives of cross-pollination.  They may be put onto one team for a specific project that depends on commonality, yet in effect they are all different. When the outcome is positive, advertise that fact and draw attention to it at every moment.


3.    Sales Trips


Being on the road, in the air or on the train tracks with another from work has the potential to do the most amazing things for each other.  Co-travellers generally find themselves living out of each other’s pockets and starting to discover the real and human side of the partner the longer the travel continues.  In simple terms, travelling together lets each see the real other! An international manager could use sales trips to intentionally place the most challenging of personalities and cultures together and see what emerges!


An Example of Culture Tipping Conflict Over The Edge


One international organization recently found themselves in a culturally-fuelled conflict situation in Nigeria. With a predominant local work force, an Indian leader was hired as Head of Operations. The specific conflict that arose quickly lost focus from the real problem, becoming not only a cultural discrimination case, but also a sexual harassment case.  Yet the real issue was simply a different way of production, which if explained and trained, would never have been an issue in the first place.  Yet even so, it really only gained ‘dangerous ground’ once the concept of culture joined the elements of the dispute.


The above example is relevant for conflict that arises during an international manager’s tenure. If the international manager enters an organization where cultural conflict already exists, this situation must be managed effectively and quickly from the very start.   This will demonstrate what is and is not negotiable along with priorities of the new management. Taking no action, or placing cultural differences down the list of priorities, will simply reinforce its place in the organization, and will have dangerous consequences that will bite later.


To embed a positive change in any corporate culture, suggestions for the international manager may include:


Create a Change Team

This is a new team with a dedicated and clear purpose that all are aware of.  It could perhaps assist the understanding & integration of cultural differences into the organization as a high priority. 


Communication Activities

All internal avenues such as staff magazines, bulletin boards, desktop flash screens and email footers have the opportunity to advertise and reinforce new priorities.  The new international leader may inculcate the company with an “everyone’s responsibility” attitude, asking for examples of success from each department rather than an all encompassing HR response.


Not only are culturally-fuelled differences horrible to have in your environment, but they are also agents that take eyes off the organizational goals.  Block its source, walk a different language everyday and watch the focus of today become futility of tomorrow in your workplace.


{#/pub/images/debbienicol.jpg}Written by Debbie NicolManaging Director, 'business en motion' 

With leadership workshops, strategic approaches to organizational development and change, executive coaching and public speaking engagements, Debbie’s USP is the ability to open minds of those around her. Offering both traditional and contemporary toolkits focused on story-telling as the impetus for self and corporate leadership change. Sectors span across Asia, Africa and specializing in Middle East, including Saudi Arabia.


Do you have a management question for Debbie?  Please visit our International Management Community, she will be happy to help: Ask an Expert


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Have you ever made assumptions based on your own culture that led to embarrassing moments overseas?